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Is the Parthenon a Pile of Stones?

Parthenon Acropolis Greece

Sometimes, behind a pile of stones, an unparalleled harmonic relationship can be hidden. [Image: LPDS/Wombo Art]

Is the Parthenon a pile of stones? What a question, like that, quickly, when the one who asks you is someone endowed with an extraordinary and brilliant intellectual capacity, and when the person who has to answer was barely 14 years old at the time... and owned an extraordinary and not at all brilliant ignorance... despite dominating from top to bottom all the main rivers and their tributaries, mountain ranges, countries and their capitals of the five continents... and even the elements of the periodic table.

The strange question was part of a 1st year History exam for what, back in the late 1980s, was known as the B.U.P. (Bachillerato Unificado Polivalente), and to which the students used to refer sarcastically as Burros Unidos Pastando, which sometimes did not stop fitting with those of us who did not stop showing off, with ostentation and treachery, of a certain degree of wildness. We were not a few in the classroom who looked at each other disconcerted by that question... what would our teacher have drunk or smoked? -We got to thinking.

That unused way of questioning the characteristics of one of the most emblematic constructions of antiquity did not intend anything other than, apart from the specific knowledge that each one of us might have about the Doric style in ancient Greece, to be the can opener of some minds, for the most part, lacking the most important and that should be at the base of any educational system: the promotion of critical, autonomous, independent thinking, simply was about thinking by ourselves. That innocent and funny question did not stop hiding a solid intention when most of us were about to regurgitate the binge to which we had subjected our memory the night before.

For some of us, that question would leave an indelible memory. It was quite a torpedo in the waterline of an educational system that sacrificed critical thinking for memorization; knowledge in quantity.  We would have the fortune to follow the maker of the strange question in subsequent courses, thanks to the subject of Philosophy. He never settled or pretended to give us knowledge in quantity. Every step he took in his fun classes was nothing more than an invitation to reflection, to make questions, to pierce our hard heads with the wisdom of someone who owned a privileged intellect and who enjoyed sharing his knowledge. All this enlivened with a fantastic arsenal of jokes, at which he himself laughed as he told them. We were, without knowing it, without being fully aware of it, without fully understanding it, privileged to have his mastery within our reach.

I am sure that the magnificent Don Felipe, that was his name, must have found his Academy, where day by day enjoys among great thinkers and from where he has endless strange questions prepared for us... Thank you for making us think. Although surely he will have found the answer to difficult questions, it is no less true that new questions will continue to haunt his head.

And after this brief introduction, now yes, let's go with what we were supposed to answer in that exam... although I am convinced that the answer to said question could have been reduced to a single and accurate line, which would have obtained the maximum qualification possible. Let us see, then, from the point of view of knowledge in quantity, if the Parthenon was or was not the pile of stones that remain standing or scattered around it.

From Temple of Wisdom... to a Munitions Dump

In the sublime set of the Acropolis of Athens in Greece stands the bulk of the Parthenon, a temple dedicated by the Athenians to Athena Parthenos (parthenos means "Virgin" in Greek), goddess of wisdom and the arts, and protector of Athens. Construction began in 447 B.C. and was finished before 431 B.C. Later, the building suffered various fates: it was a Christian church in the 5th century and a mosque after the Turks conquered the city in 1458; in 1687, during the Venetian siege, a bomb hit the munitions dump that the Turks had established there and the explosion greatly damaged the monument. In addition, they stripped it of its sculptures. Lord Elgin snatched many, between 1801 and 1812, which are in the British Museum. Despite these setbacks, the Parthenon is one of the best preserved Doric temples and one of the finest examples of Hellenic art.

Acropolis Parthenon Greece
View of the plateau where the monuments of the Acropolis are located, among which the Parthenon continues to dominate the scene.

Two characters that stand out in Greek history are linked to its realization: Pericles , who commissioned its construction to the architects Callicrates e Ictino, and Phidias, the great sculptor who directed it. The temple is peripteral, that is, it has columns on all its sides, and octastyle, with 8 columns on the facade; It measures 69.5 x 30.86 m and is almost entirely made of Pentelic marble, that is, obtained from a mountain in Attica, today called Mendeli and formerly Pentelic. Very white at first, it has acquired over the centuries a splendid golden colour, which reddens at sunset, creating an extraordinarily beautiful effect. The temple consists of a pronaos (front hall), an opisthodome (back hall) and an interior space, formed by the naos, or sanctuary, which is entered from the pronaos, and a space properly called the Parthenon, in which the objects related to the cult of the goddess were kept, which is reached from the opisthodome.

In the sanctuary, consisting of a main nave and two smaller ones, there was a large gold and ivory statue of the goddess Athena, now lost, of which only a few mediocre reproductions exist. On the Doric columns that separated the nave from the sanctuary rested others that supported the roof of the temple, possibly made of wooden beams. The 46 columns that surround the temple have the slenderness typical of Doric architecture of the classical period: they are 10.40 m high and end in a capital that accentuates their rise upwards.

Art in Movement, the Mark of Phidias and His Disciples

The Parthenon was decorated with bas-reliefs, many of them with the mark of Phidias: on the main pediment the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus was represented and, on the one corresponding to the opisthodome, the dispute between Athena and Poseidon for the possession of Attica; Reconstructions of the sculptures of the main pediment remain, and of the second, some fragments. Ninety-two metopes, the work of Phidias's students, represented the contest between the centaurs and the Lapiths. Fifteen of these bas-reliefs are kept in the British Museum, and 41 are still in the monument, although they are badly damaged.

On the outside of the walls that delimited the internal space of the temple there was a frieze, 153 meters long and 1 meter high, attributed to Phidias, which represented the Panathenaic procession, which was held in Athens every four years in honor of the goddess. About 75m of this frieze are preserved in the British Museum. The Panathenaic procession is portrayed in its measured rhythm, with the succession of groups and figures; but unexpected dynamic elements, such as rearing horses or groups of riders, give it animation and life.

Harmonic Relationship

The Parthenon, currently almost bare of sculptures, fails to convey the message that, thanks to the harmonic relationship of the architectural and sculptural elements, it must have conveyed at the time of its construction. Today its fascination is appreciated especially because of the exceptional urban environment that it presents in the Acropolis, where it was built. This is now a wide flat space 150 meters above sea level, which is reached by a staircase, through the Propylaeum, an incomplete construction in the form of a portico, which was designed by the architect Mnesicles in the Ionic style and begun by the will of Pericles in 448 B.C.

Beyond the Propylaeum, to the right on the southern side of the Acropolis, rises the mass of the Parthenon, to which they serve as a counterpoint, to the left the remains of the Erechtheion, an Ionic-style building, of which the gallery is well known of the Korai, or Caryatids, which ends on the side facing the Parthenon. The architect Philokles started it after 421 B.C. and was not completed until many years later.

Acropolis Caryatids Greece
Caryatids Gallery.

The Athenian Erechtheum is one example of the irregularity seen in certain Greek temples. It concentrated at different levels the sanctuaries of Athena Polias and Poseidon Erechtheus, both considered founders of the city. It consisted of two galleries, apart from the aforementioned Caryatids -located in the north-, which gave access to the eastern and southern sides. The northern one hid the stairs that went down to the sanctuaries.

Monumentality and Human Measure in Unparalleled Synthesis

Finally, on the incomplete side of the Propylaeum, it was built in the Ionian style, around 420 B.C., the temple of Athena Nike. The plateau on which the Acropolis monuments stand is supported by strong stone walls, which in turn are supported by sharply cut rocks, at the foot of which the city extends. Thus, the Parthenon is the culminating element of a series of masses, now blind, like the rocks and walls, now with openings and enlivened by the vibrations of light and shadow caused by the columns of the porticoes. Such an architectural ensemble has no equal, as far as is known, among those that mankind has executed in the course of its history, not even modern history: the Acropolis of Athens expresses the pleasure of living that animated the Athenian citizen and reconciles monumentality and human measure in an unparalleled synthesis.


[Source: Vv.Aa (1978). The Parthenon. In Maravillas del Saber. Consultor didáctico (Tome II, pp. 107-109). Milano, Italy: Editrice Europea di Cultura]